Whistler Beyond the Boundaries
By David Goodman
I came to ski. But first, I had to stare.
I got off the Peak Express chairlift at Whistler Blackcomb, mouth agape, and took in the scenery. A magnificent landscape of snow, ice and rock sprawled for as far as I could see. Directly in front of me stood the Black Tusk, a shark-tooth peak in nearby Garibaldi Provincial Park that towers majestically over its peers.
With 8,171 acres of skiable terrain spanning 16 bowls and 3 glaciers, Whistler is the largest ski area in North America. There is an abundance of skiing, far more than I could do in a short trip, or perhaps in a lifetime.
But what if I could start at the ski area but then strike out into the spectacular terrain that lies all around Whistler?
I decided to spend a week experiencing Whistler beyond the boundaries. I tried heli skiing, heli-assisted ski touring, lift-served backcountry skiing, and skiing some of the less traveled areas within the ski area.
I didn’t just want to taste a snack. I wanted to order off Whistler’s entire menu.
My stomach dropped as the six-passenger helicopter operated by Phantom Heli-Ski swooped across a knife-edge ridge. Phantom is Whistler’s newest heli-ski operator and operates in 247,000 acres of terrain in the Coast Range of British Columbia and is just 1.5 hours hours from Vancouver International Airport. The company is run by international mountain guide Ross Berg, who pioneered many of the ski runs that he offers to clients. Just outside the window of the chopper was the massive Tantalus Range of mountains. I had ogled these snow covered peaks from the top of Whistler. Now I was flying into the heart of them.
Bouncing around in the chopper beside me were my wife Sue Minter and her brother, Bill. We have been adventuring together in wild places for decades, but typically in the tighter confines of Vermont, where we live. For Bill, a ski bum who runs an after-school program in Stowe, Vt., heli-skiing has been an out-of-reach dream.
“This doesn’t even look real,” he declared in amazement as he surveyed the endless waves of mountains.
The chopper touched down in a saddle between two peaks. Scott McDonald, our affable heli guide, pointed to the trackless slopes that we would ski. A low angle powder field rolled out beneath us. The snow appeared perfect — which, oddly, made me feel a kind of pressure to ski it perfectly. I began scribing telemark turn after turn down into the valley. My partners were each leaving slightly different signatures: Scott and Sue were making short turns on alpine skis, Bill and I made rounder turns on telemark gear, and Caley Vanular, a snowboarder and social media influencer, carved long graceful arcs. We peered up from the bottom of the run, chests heaving from countless turns, and admired our unique inscription. A helicopter soon interrupted our reverie to fly us back to the top of a different run.
On the next flight, Scott surveyed the slopes below. He directed the pilot to where he wanted to go: a run he called 22 Again, so named for a client who was celebrating her birthday and said the run made her feel half her age.
The chopper touched down on a narrow ridge and we hopped out. We could not see what we would ski, which was slightly unsettling. Scott led us on a short traverse and suddenly our goal revealed itself. A 3,000 vertical foot slope of untracked powder that alternated between shadows and light.
Powder sprayed up across my chest and splashed my face as I dove into my first turns. I looked over to see Bill launching out of each turn and landing in an eruption of cold smoke, like a porpoise playing in powder.
“I feel like I’m in a dream,” sputtered Bill when I caught up to him halfway down the slope where we stopped to breathe and rest our legs. I couldn’t speak, only nod my agreement.
This was dream skiing, linking dozens of turns and carving our own line in deep untracked snow, a transcendent ski run you might only have a few times in your life. Down and down we went, crossing each other’s tracks then diving off into our own line. Far below, I could see Sue, a rooster tail of snow in her wake as she charged down the mountain.
We made more powder turns in a day than I had all winter at that point. We still had to leave something in the tank for our next day’s adventure.
The snow that we found was all the more stunning because ski conditions back at Whistler and in most of the backcountry were bulletproof – skier-speak for rock hard. There was no powder skiing to be had — except if you knew where the powder lay and could fly directly to it.
This was skiing as if a wizard had conjured it.
First comes dessert
The next morning, Ross Berg was flying shotgun in the helicopter. Berg is an IFMGA/ACMG certified mountain guide and the founder of Phantom Heli Ski and Altus Mountain Guides. He came to guide us on a day of heli-assisted touring, which involves a helicopter drop off in the morning and a pickup in the afternoon. We would earn our turns on this day, skinning up and skiing down. This is a grand variation on the traditional backcountry ski experience that I’ve long enjoyed, where you start at the bottom, climb up, and the descent is the reward for hours of effort. Heli touring is like a flipped meal: the heli drops us at the top and we get to have dessert first.
The helicopter touched down atop a broad snowfield high in the Tantalus Mountains. The whirling blades created a brief tornado of snow around us, but as it lifted off and the flakes settled, I looked up to take in the view. We were at the center of an amphitheater of towering peaks. We followed Ross to skin higher for views and turns.
I didn’t even realize I was climbing. The views acted as a blissful anesthesia making everything seem irrelevant. Rock pyramids, spiky gendarmes, and snow capped peaks rolled off as far as I could see. We reached a high point and pulled off our skins to descend.
“This is like skiing through an art gallery,” said Sue dreamily. She swung her skis effortlessly from side to side in the soft snow, as if she was adding soft brush strokes to a realist painting.
We celebrated the thrill of being in this wild place by having a leisurely lunch, turning our skis into lounge chairs. We had a room with a glorious view.
Ross told us that heli touring was growing in popularity because it offered the benefit of skiing in otherwise inaccessible terrain and minimizing the cost of a helicopter. “Once you’re here,” he said, motioning to the panorama, “there is no limit to where you can ski.” He is an adventurer who looks at an impossible line and sees the possible route through it.
Ski pass to another world
The next day we met up again with Scott MacDonald at Blackcomb Mountain, where we would ride the chairlift to reach Whistler-Blackcomb’s vast lift-accessed backcountry terrain. We skied across Blackcomb Glacier to a backcountry gate where signs announced that were entering avalanche terrain. Numerous skiers stopped here to check that their avalanche beacons were working, stick on climbing skins, and peel off extra clothing in preparation for the ascent.
From the bottom, the skin track looked intimidating, zigzagging steeply up the face of a glacier. Skiers appeared to be clinging to the vertical walls above us like spiders. Scott moved slowly and methodically up the mountain following a well established skinning track. I focused on the narrow track before me and not on the exposure around me.
We finally crested onto East Col, where the scenery exploded before us. In front of us was the wild reaches of Garibaldi Provincial Park and the serrated ridges of the Spearhead Range. Below us, a broad amphitheater beckoned with countless skiable lines.
We started down the route directly beneath us. My skis chattered over the frozen snow. Baseball-sized balls of ice – “death cookies” in skier’s parlance — dotted the face. I tried traversing left, then right in search of softer snow, but no luck. Whistler was frozen solid from edge to edge. Teeth chattering runs appeared to be the only option.
The scenery was optimal but the skiing was marginal. When we skinned back up, Scott proposed another run. I firmly declined.
Scott remained confident. I interpreted this as a case of guide’s pride – but I wasn’t falling for it. He persisted.
“I think if I find something due north facing, we will have good snow.” I relented – slightly. I said if we didn’t find something resembling powder at the top of the run, I wasn’t going to descend further. He accepted the challenge.
We slid across the top of a run called Body Bag, our skis chattering noisily over the wind sculpted surface. Just when I was about to pull the plug on this ill conceived adventure, my skis quieted and my edges sliced into three inches of soft snow that had somehow evaded the wind and sun. We had found the elusive powder. It was a corridor no more than 50 feet wide, but it was a soft passageway through this icy landscape. It felt as if we had miraculously found buried treasure.
Sue dropped in first and I watched her ski the line in beautiful form. Soft snow flew up in her wake as she charged straight down toward Circle Lake. I followed, making turn after turn in several inches of creamy powder. Not far from us, snowboarders were noisily sideslipping down through the death cookies. But as promised, Scott had found the key to unlock a soft secret. Standing on Circle Lake, breathing deeply, we were gleeful, feeling like we had stolen something from the stingy snow gods that day.
We skinned up and crossed a well-traveled track back from the mostly frozen world back to the groomed trails of Whistler and fast skiing all the way down the mountain. We had a remarkable demonstration of what Whistler has to offer, going seamlessly from front country, to backcountry and back.
Our multi-course sampling of Whistler’s wild treats left us satiated.
David Goodman is a regular contributor to the New York Times and other publications. He is the author of Best Backcountry Skiing in the Northeast and hosts the public affairs podcast The Vermont Conversation. Follow him on Twitter at @davidgoodmanvt